In a world where structural dynamics and state neglect have contributed to a growth in poverty, homelessness, and violence by—and against—youth, the absence of street children in Havana has distinguished postrevolutionary Cuba. 1 The streets of Cuba’s two-million-plus capital reflect the priorities and policies of the 1959 revolution, as well as the socialist commitments formalized in the early 1960s. More specifically, transformation in the economy and the pursuit of social justice created a context in which the care and education of all children became a constitutional responsibility of the state, mass organizations, and individuals. Yet the economic crisis of the 1990s, labeled the Special Period in Peacetime, has threatened the educational system and the egalitarian commitments of Cuban socialism. How have children been affected by crisis and the reforms that are adjusting Cuba to the new global order of the 1990s?
This chapter uses education to explore the distinctive role of the Cuban state with regard to children. It begins with an overview of change after 1959, presenting indicators of child welfare and well-being that reflect structural reforms and the crucial place of educational policies in Cuba’s state-directed project of social transformation. The economic crisis associated with the collapse of socialist trade and the strengthening of the U.S. embargo, as well as Cuban responses, are then explained by exploring the consequences of the Special Period for children and their education. Cuban reforms have prioritized international tourism, and with success (more than 1 million visitors in 1997) has come an increasing number of children who implore visitors for pens, money, candy, or gum. Yet “there are no niños de la calle [street children],” said one official of the Federation of Cuban Women (Federación de Mujeres Cubanas—FMC) in 1995; the children who ask for gum, she noted, have schools, a place to live, medical care, and food (Berges 1995). 2 Conclusions about these—and other—children in Cuba must be placed in the context of state policies, schooling, and the “clean streets” that have characterized postrevolutionary society.
The 1959 revolution dramatically altered the conditions of childhood in Cuba. Nationalist and then socialist policies targeted the problems created by dependent capitalist development, creating formal opportunities and new protections for children of all